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The Oseberg Find 100 year anniversary

The great adventure in Norwegian archaeology.

This is a short presentation of the exhibition “The Oseberg find 100-year anniversary – the great adventure in Norwegian archaeology”. The exhibition opens May 2nd 2004 at the Viking ship museum.

The beginning …

On August 8, 1903, a farmer named Oskar Rom paid a visit to Professor Gabriel Gustafson of The University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo. Rom had come across a ship while digging in a large burial mound on his farm, Lille Oseberg in Slagen, Vestfold.

Two days later, Professor Gustafson arrived at the farm. There could be no doubt; the burial mound was a ship grave from the Viking Age. The following summer, on June 13, 1904, an excavation team led by Professor Gabriel Gustafson broke ground with their shovels. The excavation was to continue until November 5, when the last pieces of the ship were removed.

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It came as a great surprise that the stem of the ship had the finest carvings. No one had seen anything like this since the Viking Age. In order to prevent the wood and its carvings from drying and cracking, the stem was wrapped in wet moss and sacking.

The public greeted the news of the excavation of the Oseberg burial with great interest. Large numbers of curious visitors flocked to the site. A fence had to be built, signs made and a guard posted to ensure that nobody disturbed the ongoing work or came too close to the artefacts. In his log, Professor Gustafson complains about being on display while working.

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The excavation was popular among the public.

Putting the pieces together

The excavation was completed in the autumn of 1904, but another 21 years were to pass before the ship and the majority of the objects were finally conserved and restored.

The ship was treated first. The conservators tried to use as much of the original wood as possible. Consequently there is very little new wood in the restored Oseberg ship. Although some of the iron rivets are new, many of the original rivets were saved and reused.

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Every bit of wood was steamed and pressed back into its original shape, and the ship was reassembled piece by piece.

There were also problems involved in restoring the wooden objects. Many individual objects consisted of hundreds of broken pieces. Each piece had to be carefully conserved so that the object could be reconstructed as authentically as possible. Some of the sleds took over a year to conserve and restore. At that time, the most advanced method of treating wood, involved boiling the pieces in a concentrated solution of alum. Unfortunately, due to this treatment many of the objects are now extremely fragile, with the consistency of crisp bread.

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From the restoration workshop. On the table are the preserved sled pieces ready for assembly. Another sled and one of the bed staffs can be seen in the background.

The Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy

There was no room to house the Oseberg find in the Historical Museum (existing museum). The Tune Ship (excavated in 1867) and the Gokstad Ship (excavated in 1880) were still being stored in two sheds in the University gardens.

Thus began Gustavson's quest to establish a new museum to house all the Viking ships. After long discussions, it was decided to build the Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy.

In 1914 Arnstein Arneberg won an architectural competition with a design that fulfilled the Professor's wish for a larger and more modern museum. But when World War I broke out, the plans were put on hold. In 1915 Professor Gustafson died.

The construction of the first wing of the museum, the "Oseberg Wing", was funded by state allocations in 1926-1927. In 1930 Professor Brøgger managed to have the Gokstad and Tune Ship Wings built, and the central tower completed by taking out a private loan using his own salary as collateral.

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The Viking Ship Museum took 26 years to finish.

The Viking Ship Museum, as original envisioned by architect Arneberg, has never been entirely completed. The fourth wing, which houses the various burial objects from Oseberg, Gokstad, Tune and Borre, was first completed in 1957, financed by the University of Oslo. The work of exhibiting the finds from the Oseberg ship burial was finally completed, 52 years after the excavation.

The Oseberg Ship's Final Journey?

After the ship was restored, another 19 years would pass before it found a permanent home in the new museum on Bygdøy. The move began in 1926 after half a year of detailed planning. To avoid damage to the delicate ship, it was transported on rails from the center of town to the harbor. From there the ship was moved onto a float, which carried it across the fjord to Bygdøy.

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The Oseberg ship on its way to the harbour, here by Oslo City Hall.
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The ship is moved onto the float for its last sea voyage to Bygdøy.
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The ship enters its new home.

New Relocation? What will the future bring?

The Viking Ship Museum is Norway's most visited museum, with around 450,000 guests annually. The large number of visitors, the need for better public facilities and increased security for the valuable artefacts are why plans have been underway for many years to modernize the museum.

Both the Historical Museum and the Viking Ship Museum are now a part of the University Museum of Cultural Heritage. For the first time, plans for a new museum of cultural history at Bjørvika in Oslo appear in the National Budget for 2004.

A committee appointed by the University of Oslo has proposed that the Viking Ships be moved to a new museum at Bjørvika. But many have questioned whether the ships and the many extremely fragile objects would survive the stress a move like this would expose them to. The arguments for and against are voiced loudly. What degree of risk are we willing to accept?

The hope is that the new museum will open in 2011 when the University of Oslo celebrates its 200-year anniversary. One thing is certain. The final decision as to whether or not the Viking Ship finds will be included in the new cultural history museum must be made soon.

Ban on the Export of Antiquities

The find and excavation of the Oseberg mound was directly responsible for Norway as early as in 1904 establishing a law prohibiting the export of antiquities.

In 1903 landowner and farmer Oskar Rom was the owner of the Oseberg ship and the other artefacts found in the burial mound. It was expected that he would give the antiquities to the state for reimbursement, but under the law, the owner was within his rights to sell the finds to whomever he pleased. That national treasures had so little protection under the law caused a great stir.

When the excavations were completed no agreement between the State and Oskar Rom had been reached. The matter was finally resolved when estate owner Fritz Treschow generously purchased the find for NOK 12,000 and donated it to the Norwegian State. Soon the government would pass the important bill prohibiting the export of antiquities.

Original version

See the exhibition page in its original version

Published Apr. 1, 2020 1:10 PM - Last modified Apr. 2, 2020 8:19 AM